Like the DNA that defines the working of the body, Context defines the working of our decisions, choices and tradeoffs.  Learning to reshape Context patterns becomes a critical skill for both individuals and organizations, because Context defines what is and is not possible and how we respond to life’s events

It’s just a story
Just as DNA is composed of a series of paired molecules, Context is composed of a series of paired stories.  Stories we create in response to specific life experiences.

All of life is composed of pairs of opposites:  up/down, in/out, heads/tails, warm/cold.  When we have an experience, we create a story pair: I like this/ I don’t like that, this is safe/that is dangerous, this makes me happy/ that makes me sad.

These story pairs organize and order our world.  Combined they tell us how life works and our role in it.  They guide every choice, decision and reaction we make.  It is what allows us to respond instantaneously to any event.

As we grow and have new experiences, we adjust and refine our stories – even replace old ones with new ones. This is how we grow in our maturity, moving from handling only simple situations when we are young to handling more complex situations as we mature.

Two Scenarios
Here are two CEOs presenting at an all hands meeting.  See if you can discern the underlying Context and how each organization will operate.

Scenario 1
Welcome, I want to thank everyone for the wonderful performance over this past quarter.  As our most important assets, I want to acknowledge you for the work you did.  We had a growth in profit of 10% year over year, we increased the efficiency of our shipping process improving our on-time delivery by 10%.  I know we have had to cut back on some of the staff asking many of you to step up and due a bit extra.  This is part of what helped us achieve our profit targets.  Thank you.

Scenario 2
Welcome, I want to thank everyone for the wonderful quarter we had.  I especially want to acknowledge how each of you have grown, using the challenges we faced to enhance your skills and grow our capacity.  The increased capacity in turn allowed us to serve more customers, with less cost which was reflected in our growth in profit by 5% year over year. I especially appreciate how each of you supported each other through some tough challenges, especially how everyone helped folks in shipping increase efficiency in our delivery area allowing us to improve the on-time delivery by 10%.  The folks in shipping really experienced what we mean when we say we are all in this together. Thank you

Each company CEO reported the same results, but will they make similar decisions and choices?  Do they have the same priorities, the same focus of attention?

In the first, the focus is on performance, the work each individual does, the Activity they performed. Results are what drives them.

In the second, the focus is on growing, using challenges as an opportunity to increase capability; on the work of the collective – “we are all in this together” and support of each other.  Growth in capability and hence capacity is what they drive for, which produces results.

Discovering Your Story
We can determine an organization’s Context by mapping the stories they tell about the choices they make and the actions they take.

Start by observing their behaviors, asking how stuff gets done.  We start here because Activity is visible and easy to identify.

Then explore why it’s done that way.  This begins to reveal the first layer of story.  Continue the exploration of why until common themes that run through various Activities are revealed.

Piecing the themes into a sequence of patterns reveals the organization’s Context.  For example:

Scene: CEO calls us in to work with the new VP of Marketing.  She is not getting buy-in for her new programs.  Her style is to be direct and if staff disagrees, they will argue their way through it.  We interview a number of her staff.

I understand the VP wants to take a new approach in using social media.
Yeah, she does, but it won’t work for us.
Have you told her so?
Sort of…
What do you mean sort of…?
Well when she told us her plans, we said we didn’t think it would work.
Ok, what did she say to that?
Well she disagreed.
So, what did you do?
Why didn’t you explain your reasons?
We did but she just countered them with her reasons.
Did you agree with her reasons?
Did you counter back?
We didn’t.
Why not?
Because we don’t like to create conflict.

And there it is.  The story pair that it is better to ignore things than to create conflict over it.

This new VP’s operating style, of “present and challenge” went against the organizations Context of avoid conflict at all costs.  Like an immune system, the organization had completely walled her off.  Her attempts to shift the strategic direction, while sound, was completely ignored.

Reshaping the Context
The existing Context had served an important function, creating an environment where people felt supported and safe.  Yet sometimes issues would go uncorrected, because it meant dealing with potential conflict.

To reshape Context, the first step is to understand and appreciate the benefits of the existing Context.  Appreciate how it serves the team’s needs.  How it fits into the Context of the larger organization.

The second step is to create a new set of stories that both satisfy the needs of the team and the larger organization, while also adding the additional ways of being to the story.

Then with every event live the new story.  Show how each new situation is better handled with the new story.  Create little rituals that support and reinforce the new story.

Going back to our example, the VP could have created a new Context, one where the needs for feeling supported was married with the willingness to disagree.  In this new context disagreement is not creating conflict, it is learning from other perspectives.

With the new story in mind, she would engage each new idea, in fact each meeting, keep the safe feeling of support in the forefront as she encourages people to share their different perspectives.

There is no one right Context.  Each company, each leadership team, will and should develop the Context that is right for them and the environment they operate in.

What is critical is making the Context of the organization visible and consciously aligned with the strategic objectives.  By allowing it to lie under the surface, the Context can easily be in opposition to the organization’s strategy

Making this process of reshaping Context an explicit part of strategy execution will accelerate the transformation and allow the organization to achieve greater results.